Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Miracle Worker

I will admit to having some concerns when I learned that Emily Jo Seminoff was going to be playing Helen Keller in the Woodland Opera House production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker.”  I have watched Ms. Seminoff move from talented child actor into adult roles and I wondered if she could pull off the role of the young Keller child.

I need not have worried.  This talented young lady made the role her own and her age and height were irrelevant  She was Helen Keller.

Every bit her equal in the role of Annie Sullivan, the young woman hired to teach Helen, was Patricia Glass, whom Opera House faithful may remember as Miss Tweed in the recent “Something’s Afoot.” Glass’s Annie is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.

(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped, like in golf.”)

The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie, as the latter attempts to teach her pupil manners and to try to get her to understand the concept of “words” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted.

A scene in the Keller dining room in particular, which ends act 1, owes much of its effectiveness to set designer John Bowles, who has created such a solid set that bodies falling against walls or doors or knocking over tables and chairs works so well that nobody so much as shakes and the furniture withstands the abuse it takes.

The whole set by Bowles is a marvel, on that small opera house stage, since it is designed on several levels, including an upstairs bedroom, and a downstairs area later used as a detached cottage where Annie and Helen spend 2 weeks alone together.  While things are cramped, they still all work wonderfully.

The supporting cast all handle themselves well.  Richard Lui as Captain Keller, who loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child. He is frustrated that Annie doesn’t have her under control in a matter of an hour or two on her first day.

Sara Wieringa gives a lovely performance as Helen’s mother Kate, whose love for her daughter is palpable, even as she fears some guilt over Helen’s condition.  She vacillates between wanting to support Annie, but hating to see Helen suffer under Annie’s stern hand.

Anthony Raddigan makes a striking, sardonic James, the only person  in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.

In smaller roles are Emily Delk as Aunt Ev, Melissa Dahlberg as the maid, Viney, and Belle, a specially trained and certified Assistance Dog from Canine Companions for Independence , who plays Helen’s dog Lacey, and handles herself very professionally on stage.

The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions in this production, directed by Dean Shellenberger, that when Helen finally “gets” the notion that things have words and words have meaning, there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.

Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until her (Annie’s) death in 1936.  Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak), and political activist is impressive.  She was one of the founders of the ACLU, campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.

One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out of control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Sacramento Theatre Company, the oldest professional theater company in Sacramento, has chosen the Steinbeck classic to open its 70th season, a season dedicated to “Legends, Epics and Icons.”

STC gives us a powerful production, with all of the emotion of the original book, thanks to a talented cast and the original period-style music of Sam Misner and Megan Pearl Smith of Davis, who also appear as several characters throughout the show.

The adaptation of Steinbeck’s story is by Frank Galati; it won a Tony Award for best play of 1990.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is an epic tale of one family’s enduring spirit in the face of incredible hardship. Set during the Great Depression, the play follows the Joads, a family of tenant farmers who are driven from their Oklahoma home to California due to drought, economic hardship and agricultural changes incited by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Was there ever a more perfect time for the revival of this story? The climatic change was the yearly dust storms that rolled across The Plains, killing off crops and making the soil uncultivatable; the migrant workers of the 1930s were “Okies,”coming from Oklahoma to California on the promise of farming work, as welcome then as are today’s Mexican migrant workers; and haven’t there always been heartless bankers ready to foreclose on a family’s mortgage in order to line their own pockets?

Kirk Blackinton is Tom Joad (the Henry Fonda role in the 1940 movie), recently released from prison after killing a man in self-defense, and returning home to find that his family homestead is abandoned. With the house slated for demolition by the mortgage holder, the family has packed up and decided to move to California, where they have hopes of jobs and better living conditions.

As the play progresses, Tom, a good man, who at first just wanted to reunite with his family and resume his life, becomes more and more filled with rage as he and his family are beaten down by a system that seems to target the poor for extra punishment. There are messages here for the revolutions we see around the world today.

En route home, Tom meets Jim Casy (Kurt Johnson), a preacher who has lost his faith and now is a wanderer, getting help where he can. Casy becomes the moral voice of the piece, Johnson giving a flawless and riveting performance.

Heading up the Joad family are Matt K. Miller as Pa Joad and Laura Kaya as Ma Joad. Miller’s character is stoic and subdued while Kaya’s character is the heart of the piece, fighting for her children and hanging on to the belief that if they just work hard enough, things will be better.

Granma Joad is played by Vada Russell as a crusty old woman, devoted to her ailing husband (Phillip Ryder). Ryder later appears as the mayor of Hooverville.

Alissa Doyle is “Rose of Sharon,” the newly married, newly pregnant young daughter, who endures more tragedy than most people many years older, with the desertion of her husband and the death of her baby. In the end it is she who brings a semblance of hope to everyone. It is a delicate and lovely performance.

Misner and Smith each take several roles, including adding music to the piece. Misner is particularly moving as the “Man going back,” giving up on the promises of a better life in California.

Smith gives a marvelous performance as a 1930s version of a born-again Christian. She also appears as other anonymous members of various groups that the Joads meet along their journey.

The young Joad children are from the STC Young People’s Company, each role double-cast. Opening-night performances were by Owen Larson (alternating with Elliott Thomas West) as Winfield Joad and AJ Welker (alternating with Haley Finerman) as Ruthie Joad.

Likewise, Arcadia German alternates with Sydney Christoffersen in three other roles.

We really want things to improve for the Joad family, for something promised to actually come to pass, but it never does. However, the important thing is the family love and loyalty that binds them and their indomitable pride and dignity, which appear unsquashable.